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August 16, 2012

The Sins of Rachel Cade


Gordon Douglas - 1961
Warner Archives DVD

Sometimes you just want to see a movie pretty much for its own sake. And sometimes you discover cinematic art where you weren't seeking it. And over the past few years, I've come to appreciate the craftsmanship of Gordon Douglas, a director I had blithely dismissed back when I was watching films as an academic pursuit. And yes, I am admittedly repeating myself, in using that word, craftsmanship, in discussing Douglas, but the years have revealed that some of his films are smarter, and smarter looking, than some of what currently flits in and out of the multiplexes.

And I wish that Warner Brothers hadn't made it a practice to make their DVDs unplayable on my Macbook. Especially with The Sins of Rachel Cade. People have written about the extreme close ups of Carl Dreyer and Sergio Leone. Gordon Douglas is someone who doesn't get discussed in terms of visual style, so I don't know who gets credit here, but this is a film to be loved and cherished for the close ups of Angie Dickinson. How many are there? I don't know. We're not only talking about full face shots, but several where the bottom of her frame is at her lips, and the top of the frame meets her eye brows. Really, really close. And whether the colors are muted because it was intended that way, or maybe the source print is a bit faded, I don't know, because it works. I've seen Angie Dickinson in several movies over the course of her career, but I've never seen her as lovingly photographed as in this film. If one cut out everything else in The Sins of Rachel Cade, with only the close ups of Angie Dickinson remaining, one is left with a visual poem even more beautiful than what Joseph Cornell did after whittling away all that was extraneous in East of Borneo, leaving the viewer to admire only Rose Hobart.

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The close ups aren't reserved exclusively for Angie Dickinson. Other cast members treated well by J. Peverell Marley's camera, his last feature film work, include Peter Finch, Roger Moore and Errol John. But it is the images of Dickinson that are a revelation here, as if I had never really noticed her before.

The premise does seem unpromising, about a missionary nurse from Kansas who shows up in the Belgian Congo right before World War II heats up, bringing western medicine and the word of Jesus to the natives. And some of the film plays by the classic Warner Brothers template, complete with Max Steiner score. And for a film that is in part about faith, it allows for respectful discourse and a generous view of what it might mean to be Christian that could conceivably disturb those with less flexible views. The conclusion might even be thought of as proto-feminist, both for a film that was made in 1961, that takes place twenty years earlier.

The triangle with Dickinson caught between Finch and Moore is the less interesting part of the film. More compelling is seeing several black actors given more opportunity to perform in something other than bit parts - in addition to Errol John, there's also Woody Strode, former Olympian Rafer Johnson, Scatman Crothers, Juano Hernandez and Frederick O'Neal. And sure, it took a film that takes place in deepest, darkest Africa, actually the Warner Brothers back lot, to get this kind of cast together, but there's a sense of respect and dignity afforded to everyone involved.

There is also some unexpected humor. I don't know what Finch and O'Neal were smoking in their pipes, but they let the audience know that it's not tobacco. Also, one of the more convenient plot twists is when Roger Moore literally crashes onto the scene and reveals himself to not only be an unlucky R.A.F. pilot, but also the doctor the village needs.

What may be most amusing is that The Sins of Rachel Cade was often booked in its theatrical run with another Gordon Douglas film, Gold of the Seven Saints, which also had Roger Moore in the cast. The double feature was covered by Eugene Archer for the New York Times, cracking wise about "saints and sinners" and describing the two films as "nostalgic throwbacks" of "old-fashioned movie-making". To all that, I say Amen.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 16, 2012 09:00 AM